I always flinch when I hear people speaking German. I cower away from them, as though they might turn at any moment and hit me with a ruler, or, at the very least, a very harsh rebuke.
I’m fairly certain this has to do with my somewhat tumultuous education in the language.
Over my schooling, I had three different German teachers. The first, my junior school German teacher, was absolutely terrifying. She was extremely tall, though I suppose when you’re a particularly small 12 year old, everyone seems tall. She also had bright red hair, reminiscent of the searing fires of hell, and her speech, like most Germans, was particularly guttural, which made everything she said sound like a reprimand.
Looking back, I have a great deal of respect for this woman, who showed me that women are capable of being in complete control. I now admire her ability to control 30 squealing girls, but mostly I respect the control she had over her hair, which was consistently pulled back into a perfect ponytale to match her frightening military fashion. At the time, though, these things just represented the extent of her relationship with the devil.
Frau-the-First gave us all German names, by way of entrenching us in German language and culture I presume, though possibly also as a way to further assert her control over even our identities. She called me Heike. For years I was terrified whenever anyone referred to me by any other name in, and sometimes even away from, her presence.
“HEIKE!” she would shout, “What is this? This is wrong!!”… Actually, she probably spoke to us in German (I’m not entirely sure), but my careful repression of the entire language curbs me from translating.
And I would reply, “…eep?”
She taught us that the letter “Z” should be written with astroke through, as “
Z”, and to this day, when handwriting, I put a strikethrough my “Z” for fear that she might still be watching. I was once asked by a friend why I wrote in such a way, and for the briefest second I couldn’t remember any more than the spine tingling fear I’ve come to associate with writing a stroke-less z. Yes, clearly, she traumatised me.
She also had a “Big Black Book”, in which she would write the names of children who misbehaved. We never found out what the outcome was to being placed on this list, but we all suspected that those in the Big Black Book were doomed to spend eternity under her tuition, or maybe they would have their fingers bitten off in their sleep.
Once one of my innocent classmates timidly asked, “Frau, what happens if you put us in your Big Black Book?” to which she threw back her head and released the most blood curdling cackle I’ve ever heard. *shivers*
My High School German class was a little different, particularly as I loved it.
Most classes we spent listening to “Rammstein”, eating German baked goods, and watching “Inspector Rex” (with English subtitles). I also recall writing an essay on the band “Tangerine Dream”, in English. I don’t recall learning any actual German, but our teacher, or “The Frau”, as we fondly called her, or Frau-the-Second, as she will now be known, did read our palms and told me that one day I would be a teacher.
“No,” I told her, “That’s not going to happen.” And thank everything, it never did.
Unfortunately, college level German was somewhat more like Junior School German. That is, we were actually expected to study the language. Ridiculous.
Frau-the-Third was kind enough, but clearly found my stupidity both frustrating and upsetting. I don’t blame her; it would have annoyed me too.
I’m sure I had some learning block caused by my earliest German education/trauma, since I would spend hour after hour attempting to keep up with the rest of the class, only to consistently fail each and every assignment. I’m really sure, though, that I would have achieved far better results had the questions been written in English. So unfair.
When my final examinations came around, I was pumped. My teacher had given me extra tuition, and I had sacrificed all my other subjects in an attempt to pull through a pass in German. Surely so much work had to pay off.
I failed the aural exam, which was no surprise. I knew I couldn’t understand a thing that was being said when listening to spoken German, and knew that no amount of study was going to change that. All I heard when they turned on the tapes was Frau-the-First shouting at me, so on my examination sheet I simply wrote: Nein.
The written exam was a little more of a success, I actually understood two out of three of the questions, and managed to put multiple words, in German, on the page. Success! If I could do that, then I could do anything!!
My final exam was a combination of conversation and reading. I honestly can’t remember much about the conversation part of the exam, except that I spent the entire time sweating profusely and trying not to pee my pants. I was confident, however, about the reading part. How hard could it be to just read a piece of writing? I didn’t even need to understand what I was saying.
I grew even more excited when the examiners handed me the piece to read. It was about Haribo lollies, and I was sure that was a good sign. How could anything go wrong in a piece about something so delicious?!
I moved through the piece smoothly, my confidence, pride and belief that I might actually pass beginning to swell.
The piece finished on the word “Haribo,” which I proudly enunciated with the most guttural German “R” I could achieve, and in doing so, I promptly spat square in the face of my examiner.
My final German mark would be of no surprise to anyone, but I didn’t let it hold me back. I carefully and quickly repressed my entire German education and decided to learn other languages instead. I am now fairly competent in Latin, have a basic understanding of Ancient Greek and French, and vaguely recognise some Spanish. Also, I can say “Do you have any cheese?” in Danish.
Take that German! In your face!